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descent in search of understanding

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Elizabeth had encountered royalty before; indeed, her first curtsy had been made in utero, when her mother, as a new bride, had been presented to Caroline at Richmond. But she was a king herself now, and this was a different court.

The mosaic floor showed a design of horses running across an open plain, manes streaming in the wind, froth on their lips. A sideboard was piled high with platters of grapes and pink apples, a golden pitcher and silver goblets. The Queen of the Dead was stroking the dog sprawled in her lap, one of its mouths occupied by a gnawed-clean bone, another nosing the arm of the Queen's throne. She was wearing a long white dress in the Grecian style, its hem flecked with mud and gold, and hair arranged in a long plait wrapped around her head. Elizabeth had spent most of the past several weeks wearing trousers and cambric blouses, sleeping in between storms and nursing, and she felt overdressed in her formal gold-embroidered baju melayu and seluar.

The bones in her spine ground together as she pulled herself as upright as the mainmast of the Empress. Everything frightened and ordinary and human in her had been put away in her sea-chest, along with Will's heart.

She is wed to the master of the Dutchman, she is the Pirate King, but she is the supplicant here, and so walking into Persephone's realm, she did not look directly into the milky, pupilless eyes of the Queen of the Dead. "Majesty," she said, and waited.

The dog leaped off the Queen's lap and snuffled at her hem, claws clicking on the mosiac tile, one red tongue swiping across her palm, which she held outward to show she had no weapons. A sword would not keep her safe here. There is no safety in the realm of the dead; Elizabeth has been to the Locker, and she knows.

"You'll forgive me if I don't get up," Persephone said, and Elizabeth glanced up through her lashes. "Even the undying gods get old." She snapped her fingers, and the dog scrambled to sprawl at her feet, one head dozing off, while the others gazed at her adoringly. "Come, sit. We have matters to discuss, you and I. It has been long and long since a sister-king has come to me. But first, there are the rituals."

"I don't have to sacrifice any hecatombs of cattle, do I?"

"No, my rivers are well-fed with the blood of your dead," Persephone told her. "We need only break bread and drink wine so I may welcome you properly."

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at Persephone and the glints of wheat-gold in her blood-black hair, old old memories rising up like flotsam in a current. "And if I eat your bread and drink your wine, will I be permitted to return to my country and my crew?" she asked, as tart as unripe berries. She watched Persephone crack open a pomegranate with a horn knife, the thumbnail-sized seeds spilling across the plate. "Does accepting your hospitality signify any pledge of loyalty?"

"You're wiser than I was when I came here," the Queen of the Dead said. She popped a palmful of pomegranate seeds into her mouth and crunched down. She licked her fingertips. "Or at least more cautious. No, little sister, you're free of obligation. There's no oath served at my table. I'd rather have your friendship than your fealty, there are slaves enough in the world, and it's been long and long again since I had a friend."